The Milgram experiment, a study based on a person’s obedience to an authority, was a series of social psychology experiments. These experiments measured the willingness of people to obey a person with authority. During the study, head figures instructed participants to perform acts that would normally conflict with their personal morality. Milgram’s experiments started shortly after the trial of German Nazi Adolf Eichmann in July of 1961. During the trial, Eichmann defended himself by saying that his actions were simply a result of him following the orders of a higher authority.
This struck Milgram and proposed a question that needed to be answered: Were Eichmann and the accomplices in the Holocaust just following orders? Or were their actions a representation of their intent? The question above led Milgram to develop the study to see how far an individual would go in obeying instruction, even if it involved harming another person. Volunteers were enrolled for a lab experiment that dug into learning and ethics. There were 40 males between the ages of 20 to 50 with varied careers.
During the experiment there were three roles; a teacher (role of the volunteers), a learner (an actor), and the experimenter. The teacher was asked to administer increasingly sever eclectic shocks to the learner for every incorrect or silent answer given. The shock levels were labeled from 15 to 450 volts. Along with a numerical scale, words such as moderate shock, strong shock, intense shock, danger, and even XXX were added to the scale. The twist is that since the learner was simply an actor, there were no “actual” shocks given, just a verbal response from the learner acting as if the shocks were real.
At 75 volts, the leaner began to moan, at 120 they would complain, and at around 285 they let out screams and cries of intense pain. This caused some teachers to not want to continue with the experiment. The experimenter gave commands such as “please continue”, too more aggressive commands like “the experiment requires that you continue” to try to keep the teacher engaged in the experiment. The results from the experiment were quite shocking to Milgram. Some teachers refused to continue early on in the experiment. This was what Milgram considered to be normal.
The shocking part was that “the norm” was actually the minority. About 65 percent of the teachers were willing to reach the maximum shock level. Although the teachers were able to proceed with the experiment, there were unusual acts of behavior demonstrated. Teachers would ask the learners to ask questions carefully, seem cold, hopeless, and even thought they killed the learner. But nevertheless they still proceeded and told themselves that the experiment must go on. Milgram was able to break the participants into three categories: Obeyed but justified themselves, obeyed but blamed themselves, and rebelled.
Those that obeyed and justified themselves blamed the responsibility on the experimenter. They reasoned that if anything happened to the learner, their blood was on the experimenter’s hands. On the contrary, those that blamed themselves were quite harsh on themselves and would probably be able to challenge authority if they were presented with a similar situation in the future. Lastly, the participants that rebelled questioned the authority and argued that the experiment was unethical. This group did not conform to the authority and were able to challenge the requests from the experimenter.